Slow cooker, meet mac and cheese! If you’re looking for a hands-off recipe for delicious mac and cheese, you’ve found it. We have a few tricks to avoid mushy pasta and watery sauce, too!
In my pre-child life, I made truly decadent macaroni and cheese dishes. I would buy a single wedge of cheese (the now-equivalent cost of an entire week’s worth of diapers) that would melt into perfectly cooked pasta with a creamy sauce. Sometimes I would spoon this masterpiece straight out of the pan into a bowl and eat it, and sometimes I would bake it into something with crispy edges.
But this kind of macaroni and cheese is a complete waste on my children. They want nothing to do with it. They want the from-the-box macaroni and cheese. It’s almost like it was deeply engrained in their American genes.
ESCAPING THE BLUE BOX
Of course, the truth about macaroni and cheese for most American children is that they want what they are used to. Because of busy lives and the low cost of boxed macaroni and cheese, that is what most kids know. Give them something else, even if that something else is delicious, and it’s just weird.
So, I’ve waged war on the blue box in my house. Do we have a Costco-sized box of it in our basement? Absolutely. But do I want my kids to realize that there is a whole world of better macaroni out there? Also, absolutely.
My assault on the blue box is therefore a slow one. If your kids are like mine and refuse to try different macaroni and cheese options, take it in steps.
To start, trade the macaroni in the box for a different variety. Cavatappi is what I used here, for example. If you can’t find this corkscrew-shaped pasta, fusilli will do. Use the seasoning packet so it will have the same color and flavor, but will get them used to varied shapes!
Once the door is open, you can start shifting to new cheeses, and eventually you can introduce them to something that is delicious for you and not completely foreign to them.
BABY STEPS: SLOW COOKER MAC AND CHEESE
This Slow Cooker Macaroni and Cheese doesn’t have any odd or expensive cheeses that will challenge young palates. However, I do like it with a slightly sturdier pasta shape so I trade the elbow macaroni for cavatappi (which also goes by cellentani).
It’s a simple and delicious mac and cheese that requires very little attention. If nothing else, if gives your hands a break from ripping open those seasoning packets!
TRICK #1: Start with Less liquid Than You Need
I’ll be the first to admit that cooking pasta in a slow cooker is tricky. The Internet will tell you that it’s easy. Toss the stuff in and come back in two hours! Perfect!
But slow cookers are not necessarily a one-size-fits-all situation and pasta is a delicate ingredient. Depending on the slow cooker and the exact pasta you are using, it might soak up all the liquid and you’ll be left with a dry mac and cheese, or it might cook quickly and you’ll be left with a gooey pasta mess. It’s a big world of equipment and pastas out there. There are a lot of variables!
So, the trick is to start with less liquid than you might end up needing.
Overcooked pasta is the worst. No one wants to eat that, especially not children. You can always add more liquid and cook the pasta a bit more, but if you overcook it, you’re sunk.
The recipe I give for this macaroni and cheese starts with the bare minimum of liquid. But this is important:
Everyone’s slow cookers are different. You may need to add more liquid. You may not. The important thing is that the noodles are completely covered or almost completely covered, but not swimming in liquid, during the cooking process.
Trick #2: Stir After 90 Minutes
One other important note: at the 90-minute mark, check the mac and cheese.
The tell-tale sign of needing more liquid in this recipe is if when you open the lid, the sauce isn’t saucy but looks gloppy and unincorporated. Or it may look solid on top, and you may think all the liquid is absorbed and might be tempted to add more.
But try stirring it first. This may help it look more uniform and creamy. In terms of liquid, use milk or any stock, or even water at this point. Any liquid will work to thin the sauce out and make the sauce perfectly creamy.
When I make this recipe, I usually have to add an extra cup of liquid after the pasta is cooked (so somewhere around the two hours mark). If you use a smaller pasta, like traditional elbow macaroni, you will need to add less liquid. Add the liquid in small batches (I usually do it a 1/2 cup at a time), stir, taste, and keep going if it needs more.
Eventually, the sauce will turn silky smooth. You’ll know when it’s right!
The DAD ADD: Crispy Bacon Crumble!
Three ingredients are all you need to make this all-purpose topping. It’s fantastic on any creamy pasta dish, but you’ll probably have some leftovers as well. You should keep those in the fridge and they go well sprinkled on all sorts of salad and vegetables (because bacon). Use it generously!
If you skip the bacon, make sure you salt and pepper to taste before serving to wake up all the flavors.
The REPORT CARD
While this was not the “blue box” macaroni and cheese that my kids will scarf down, it was acceptable to both of them (and much preferred by me and my wife). The kids poked it and prodded it into submission, eventually tried it, and realized that it was, in fact, pretty damn good.
The four-year old was feeling particularly ambitious on this day and even tried some of my crispy bacon topper, which I was hesitant to share. But when it comes down to it, parental love is really about sharing bacon with your kids. Nobody wants to, but you do it because you love them.